How are people so awful?
Police shooting unarmed man . . . refugees . . . another massacre . . . bomb threat . . . terror . . . death.
Being entrenched in these nasty ideas, and living in a world where these things happen every week, fills people with all kinds of terror. This terror sometimes leads to people looking to God for some answers.
According to Swedenborg’s theology, people have to be free to be horrible because they have to be free to be good. People must be free to do bad things and good things, so that they can freely choose to love and follow the good stuff and reject the bad stuff.
(If you’d like to know more about Swedenborg’s theology of freedom, check out this page on divine providence. Or, if you’re the visual type, there’s a quick video overview on our offTheLeftEye YouTube channel and a more in-depth discussion in “How You End Up in Heaven or Hell.”)
When people are choosing between good and evil, Swedenborg describes three degrees of decision-making: love, thought, and action. The first step has to do with what we love or value; these are the feelings that, for better or for worse, drive everything we do. In the second step, the love that drives a person connects with their thoughts (“I could do the dishes so no one else has to suffer through them”); and the third step is about what we actually do. Each of these degrees of decision-making helps people connect the things they love with the things they do—and it can lead to good things or to bad things, depending on the person.
Step One: Love
People are all motivated by love, even when they do awful things that destroy something beautiful. People can be motivated by every love that exists in the world: domination, success, fear, horror, helping, leading and guiding others—the list never ends.
Swedenborg says that because people are in this jumbled world, they have a mix of all sorts of loves. They love thousands of things every moment. So a person could be motivated by a good (selfless) love in one decision, and then a bad (selfish) love in the next. That’s just part of being human. But he also says that over time, we will tend toward one type of love or motivation more than any other—what he calls a “dominant love.”
Step Two: Thought
Before we bring love to life by acting on it, we must start to plan or dwell on certain thoughts. Swedenborg notes that people have many loves, and usually people cannot know which love inspires them to think, process, and plan in every moment. The responsibility of human beings on earth is to be careful of the thoughts we entertain; if our goal is to be loving or kind, we should reject thoughts of harming others.
It’s impossible to constantly control individual thoughts, but it’s possible to control the ideas one invites back to stay for a while. Thoughts create a bridge between loving something and doing something about it, and this bridge comes in the form of a plan or developed idea. Usually, these thoughts are fun for the brain to dwell on; fun ideas are fun because of the love that influences them—but for a bad person, it’s the negative thoughts that are fun to dwell on, and for a good person, it’s the loving, caring thoughts.
Step Three: Action
Acting on loves happens in good and bad ways. Someone can love hurting other people, think about and plan ways to hurt others, and then act on that love, making it real and impacting others in potentially awful ways. Someone could love sharing with their neighbor, and think about ways to make delicious food to share with their family, and in that decision, they are acting on that love.
Swedenborg notes that our responsibility lies primarily in action—we can control our actions much more easily than we can control what we love. If everyone could easily control their loves, the world would be a much different place.
In most ways, this is a comforting thought. We are responsible for the actions we take, not the thoughts that wander into our heads or an occasional wish for acclaim or power, even though those aren’t things we would want to rule our lives.
So . . . Why Do People Make Terrible Decisions?
People make awful decisions because they dwell on awful ideas that come from terrifying loves. They are responsible for their actions, because they are acting on wrong and/or harmful ideas that they love. Every person has the ability to do awful things. It’s a necessary choice for people to have, because without the choice, people wouldn’t be free.
Swedenborg says that God allows for terrible things to happen to preserve this most-important freedom for humanity. These bad situations aren’t always hopeless—they also present a chance for humankind to step up and love the people around them, which is why people create GoFundMe accounts for survivors of tragedy or “Take Them a Meal” accounts for people with hardships.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.” —Fred Rogers